Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe
Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe is a casual time management game with a cooking theme. You take orders from your customers, use different machines to prepare the dishes, serve them and bill them after they’re done eating. It’s not a revolutionary idea, it’s actually been done many times before and also in several other variants (fashion design, hospital care, veterinary ward, murder investigation etc), but it’s the kind of game that I would prioritize playing above almost any other.
In terms of genre / game design, GameHouse titles most likely come to mind first, since they are the most popular on Steam among players who enjoy this kind of games. The present review aims to draw a comparison between Alawar Entertainment’s Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe and GameHouse’s Delicious series.
GameHouse titles are considered very good not only because of the gameplay that is highly addictive, but also because of the heartwarming stories that they deliver. It’s not what topics they address, it’s how they convey the message – with a touching soundtrack, animated cutscenes, emotional rollercoasters, quirky dialogue lines and funny jokes. In comparison to that, Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe’s story felt rather bland and cliché and in some aspects extremely implausible (bad-guy rival turned into a good-guy in his free time – not while doing “business” though – and then love interest). Delivered via a couple of lines exchanged by the main characters at the beginning of each level and an intermezzo between chapters, it was still nice to read it but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was missing: maybe some depth? some emotional involvement? some wit? truth be told, the characters didn’t manage to stick with me or make me feel for them.
The gameplay is basically the same as any GameHouse game (and therefore as addictive as it gets), with an exception: there are no minigames (some of the actions from GameHouse titles require you to complete a very short minigame which involves rampant clicking and which is usually timed). I do like the aforementioned minigames, even if they can interrupt your action flow, but Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe provides in that regard a much more relaxing experience and you can finally develop a rhythm that you can apply throughout the level (especially since all customers seem to spend the same amount of time eating). On the other hand, in Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe there’s so much more going on – more machines to take care of and more foods that are timed (you need to keep an eye on them and stop their preparation at the right moment in order to avoid burning or overspilling), the items that you need to refill requires extra clicks etc. So even with a steady rhythm, you will still need to focus a lot and keep an eye on multiple things at once.
One mechanic that is extensively used in Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe (and which I really liked) was the shared tray between Claire and her helper Daniel and the fact that the task pool is split between 2 (or sometimes 3) different characters. Usually Daniel takes care of the drinks / food carts, helps with the refills and manages half of the customers, while Claire prepares the main dishes and bills the other half. This has both advantages and disadvantages to the gameplay. With two characters splitting the jobs, you don’t need to run through the whole level in order to gather all the ingredients and deliver the order, plus preparing the dishes is faster since it’s done in parallel. On the other hand, delivering a full order requires waiting until you have gathered all items from both characters – so it requires a bit more management in that regard. Also, if Claire needs a refill, you need to plan ahead the tasks that Daniel has queued so that he is free to do his part when she needs it.
One thing that bothered me a bit in Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe was the fact that the particular details of the food were sometimes very difficult to distinguish. Between pizzas with shrimp and pizzas with mushrooms there wasn’t a big visual difference, so I ended up mixing them up a lot. Preparing burgers with a tomato slice or without one was also confusing, since the tomato is displayed as a very thin red line, almost indistinguishable. Same for ham sandwiches. Ice creams had to be prepared with topping, but the topping was so big that it covered the whole ice cream bullet, making it very difficult to see if the customer wanted a strawberry ice cream, a vanilla or a chocolate one.
Another thing that confused me until the end was the store upgrades. Every completed level rewards you with a certain sum of money (regardless of how much you actually earned on that level or how well you played) that you can use for buying upgrades in your restaurant. However, there are no descriptions about what they do and eventually I concluded that these have a cosmetic purpose only, unlike in other games where upgrading your machines makes your gameplay easier (faster cook & refill time, more cups filled at once etc.). I don’t even know if internally they have an effect on the customers (perhaps increasing the patience / waiting time) – there is no information about that.
Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe offers three difficulty types, and while I usually play GameHouse games on “Normal”, Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe’s “Normal” felt more like “Expert” to me because of how many things one has to handle at once, so after a few levels I gave up and switched to “Easy”. Surprise, surprise, my progress was reset and I had to start from the first level again! In a game in which the total score doesn’t count at all (the amount of money you earn is not listed in any leaderboards or used in any other way), I don’t really see why you wouldn’t be allowed to switch the difficulty for each level. I eventually played on “Easy” until the end, and some of these levels seemed a bit “too easy”, while others had to be repeated several times, just like it would happen if you played on “Normal”.
Is Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe a bad game? Definitely not, but it’s also not as good as a GameHouse game. It has some annoyances in terms of visuals and an average / shallow story but if you can get past these it can prove to be as enjoyable as any other GameHouse game. It has a similar level structure, very nice graphics, compelling gameplay with some innovative elements and on top of that it’s much more affordable ($6.99 vs $12.99).
Feel free to also check my review of the sequel, Claire’s Cruisin’ Cafe: High Seas Cuisine.